Continuing AW‘s investigation into alarming dropout rates, Robert Mann reports on his study to find out why it’s happening

Sport England’s most recent “Active People Survey” highlighted that childhood participation in athletics and distance running has become increasingly popular in England. Although this growth in participation is promising for England Athletics, the number of athletes taking part in the sport declines after puberty. This issue is not exclusive to distance running, with poor retention rates being reported within most organised sport, both team and individual.

However, England Athletics has recently spent valuable effort researching the factors that may cause this issue. One possible cause of this dropout is that these athletes may be training too hard too soon, thereby damaging their long-term development and negatively influencing their motivation to continue in the sport.

This is often recognised as overtraining, yet precisely how common it is among young distance runners and the potential causes is still not clear. This has become the focus of our research group, the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre (CHERC) at the University of Exeter, and we are collaborating with England Athletics to explore the issues that underpin the dropout rate from the sport.

What is overtraining?

Overtraining is complicated. Although it has been researched for many years, uncertainty still surrounds the details of its definition, duration, causes and prevention. This is best illustrated by the fact that overtraining is used to describe both a process and an endpoint, both the act of overtraining and its effects on the athletes. In order to separate the two concepts, the term overtraining syndrome (OTS) is used to represent the endpoint of the condition. However, it is important to realise that this condition is just one of a number of related conditions, all of which sit along sit along a continuum that ranges from mild fatigue to debilitating stress and physical impairment.

Acute fatigue is normal

After a regular training session, it is likely that an athlete will feel acutely fatigued. Although this may reduce performance in the next session or two, it is short-lived, perhaps lasting hours to a few days at most. With appropriate recovery, performance is likely to improve due to the principle of super-compensation.

Functional over-reaching

Next along the continuum is functional over-reaching (FOR), occurring when a decline in performance lasts a little longer. This is typically observed after an intense phase of training, such as a training camp, during which the athlete is exposed to a greater amount of training stress than they are normally used to.

It can take between a few days and two weeks to recover from FOR, with performance eventually improving beyond the athlete’s previous level. However, if this decline in performance lasts for more than two weeks to months, then the athlete could become non-functionally overreached (NFOR) which is counter-productive.

Overtraining syndrome

Finally, if this reduction in performance lasts from several months to a year or more, then the athlete would be defined as having overtraining syndrome (OTS). Although there is an increase in severity of each condition along the continuum, an athlete does not always experience each condition in a structured fashion.

The order that each athlete experiences these conditions, and for how long, is based on the individual training practices of their chosen sport and is influenced by many physical, psychological and social factors.

A consensus statement published in 2013, jointly written by the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine, reported that there are more than 90 signs and symptoms of overtraining.

Therefore, it is necessary to understand how common overtraining is within a specific population before attempting to understand which factors are causing this to happen.

COMMON SIGNS OF OVERTRAINING

Five of the most common signs and symptoms of overtraining:

1) Mood changes
2) Sleep disturbances
3) Persistent muscle soreness
4) Loss of appetite
5) Frequent illness

How common is OTS in youth sport?

When compared to adults, our scientific understanding of youth overtraining is very limited. In adults, the prevalence of OTS has been approximated between 10 and 60%, with a figure of 25-30% representing an average within the available literature. In young athletes, the prevalence of OTS is similar to that of adults, being reported at between 30 and 35%.

In a recent study by our own research group, it was reported that overtraining was more common in young athletes taking part in individual sports, with 37% of these athletes having experienced periods of NFOR or OTS, compared to 17% of team sport athletes. They also found that females and those competing at the highest representative levels experienced OTS more frequently.

These research findings highlight that overtraining affects a significant minority of young athletes, yet only a subset of the data was specific to distance running. Our challenge, therefore, is to understand how overtraining affects the training practices of adolescent distance runners and whether this is something that may need to be explored in further detail in the future. It is hoped that this research will result in tangible benefits for all involved parties, including coaches, parents and the individual athletes.

Can you help?

This gap in the literature offers a unique opportunity to explore how common overtraining is among distance runners. Specifically, we are looking for adolescent distance runners to complete an online survey that will be used to detail the prevalence of overtraining. This will take no longer than 20 minutes to complete and is open to any England Athletics-registered athlete aged 11 to 15 who is competing in or training for an 800m event or longer, including cross-country running.

The results from this research project will provide a much better understanding of how overtraining may affect, and be affected by, the training practices of distance running. Our intention is to use this research to develop a longitudinal project with England Athletics that aims to better understand athlete retention with respect to their training practices.

Adolescent athletes who want to complete the online survey should go to englandathletics.org/youthendurance. This should only be completed by the athletes. However, if you are either a coach or parent of adolescent distance runners, please feel free to contact me via email for more information: [email protected].

» This project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), in affiliation with the South West Doctoral Training Centre (SWDTC). Robert Mann is a researcher in the school of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter and a keen distance runner himself, regularly competing for the Exeter Harriers